Cancer. The ancient scourge of not just humans but the natural world, likely existing even back when the first multicellular beings were around. In fact lung, trachea, and bronchus cancers alone caused 1.6 million deaths in 2015, 3% of all deaths that year worldwide. It’s listed generally in the top ten killers of humans every year. It is such a huge killer in fact that it’s become infamous among the human population, with the surprisingly common belief that if you get it, you are probably going to die.
However, cancer isn’t black in white the way many believe it is. Most cancers actually aren’t as dangerous as you may be inclined to believe (although they are very dangerous!), and we have many existing and upcoming treatments to battle it.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is essentially uncontrolled cell growth. Normally, cells are supposed to coordinate with each other to accomplish tasks for the body. They grow and divide, and carry out tasks, and at the end of their life they self destruct. To put it in a different perspective, regular cells work for the good of the organism.
Cancerous cells, however, are different. They continue to divide and grow, even if the immune system gives it signals to self-destruct due to their age. Because they don’t die, they simply continue to divide and grow, stealing more of the body's resources and even signalling the body to create more blood vessels through a process called angiogenesis, creating a tumour.
You can divide these cancer cells into two categories, benign tumours and malignant tumours. Benign ones neglect to start angiogenesis and are content just multiplying. However, malignant ones will build blood vessels and through that process can even use those blood vessels to travel throughout the body in a process called metastasis.
Why do cancer cells become like this? Well, it’s because of errors that have built up after generations of cells repeatedly divide. Our cells try their best to preserve their DNA when multiplying, but this isn’t always perfect. If enough errors pile up, you may end up with cell DNA that tells the cell to ignore signals to die. You could look at cancer cells as cells that don’t act for the good of the organism, but instead themselves.
There are many types of cancers, based on where they are based, what they do, and the kind of cell that mutates, for example, leukemia is the cancer of the blood, and breast cancer is the cancer of the breast. Even across all of these fields, the base principle remains unchanged; cells that have DNA damaged to the point they become zombies, eating away at the body's resources.
Contrary to popular belief, many cancers are treatable.
Current Treatments and their problems
Currently, the most common ways of treating cancer generally boil down to three things: Chemotherapy, Surgery, and Radiation Therapy. Let’s go over what they do.
Chemotherapy is essentially the process of attacking cancer cells using powerful chemicals meant to kill them and prevent further growth. This is very useful especially when a tumour has already been removed, as it can help kill any lingering cancer cells, but it can work well on its own. Chemotherapy also can be specialized to work on a specific part of the body, which is very useful if the tumour has not metastasized (meaning moved throughout the body).
However, chemotherapy is not specialized to work on cancer cells by itself, and also damages healthy cells, which will weaken the body. This means getting sick during chemotherapy is exponentially more dangerous as your immune system cannot fight off the virus.
Surgery is probably the most straightforward way of fighting cancer and is very useful on early-stage tumours that are easier to remove. It simply involves cutting you open and removing the tumour surgically. This is also very effective even on larger tumours as long as cancer has not metastasized, as it almost guarantees cancer will be completely removed.
However, after the surgery, the pain will persist for a while, for obvious reasons, and another pitfall is that if the tumour is on a vital organ, it makes it much harder if not impossible to remove.
Radiation Therapy probably feels like the most novel treatment, where you blast the affected area with ionizing radiation, which damages the DNA of the cancer cells, killing them. This is usually done with a Linear Accelerator machine.
However, like chemotherapy, it cannot distinguish healthy cells from cancerous ones. This means the radiation can affect healthy cells. This is also why they may give you an IQ test before and after, as it can lower your IQ by one or two points.
The current treatments definitely work, but they each have their own pitfalls. However, new and upcoming treatments aim to solve the problems the current ones have (and other problems!), so I’d like to show you three of the most cutting-edge ones.
A treatment concept that is proven to likely work in the future, the cancer vaccine aims to train the immune system into killing cancer, as any other vaccine would. This would effectively remove the downfall of chemotherapy as the body would only attack and kill cancer cells. Essentially, you can unleash a special molecule called RNA into the body which tells cells to create certain proteins, in this case, a cancer antigen, which tells the immune system to kill cancer cells.
This treatment is promising, however, there is one pitfall. It is that each vaccine must be personalized, as different cancer cells have different DNA, making manufacturing hard, as essentially you are creating a different product every time the vaccine gets produced. This must be solved before this kind of vaccine can become viable.
Tumours are often invisible to the body, which is why they were able to become tumours in the first place. In most cases when a cell becomes cancerous, the body immediately kills it, but in some cases, cancer mutates in a way that makes it invisible to the body, which is when it really gets dangerous. However, there are microbes in our body that mimic tumour antigens, which can be leveraged for this method. A vaccine can be created with these microbes, effectively revealing the “invisible” cancer cells, allowing them to be targeted.
However, this treatment will not be released for some time. It is still undergoing trials, and if it passes the trials, it will still be many years from now before it is put on the market.
Non-Invasive Cancer Treatment
This entails killing off cancer without ever making an incision in the body, the very definition of non-invasive. This can be done through injection for example, and many of these kinds of treatments actually don't come with many cancer treatment side effects. One non-invasive treatment entails injecting metal nanoparticles into the tumour, which can then be heated up by a doctor using electromagnetic waves to kill the surrounding cancer cells.
However, there can be pitfalls here too. For example, the non-invasive treatment mentioned earlier about using nanoparticles would require the metal to be heated up very quickly, as the body itself is very, very good at dissipating heat, especially on a cellular level.
The Future of Cancer
Where do we go from here in terms of stopping the scourge of cancer? One option could be simply prevention strategies. In the article, I actually only really mentioned treatments that fight cancer after it develops. However, some are now focusing on preventing cancer from developing in the first place. If we could do that, all these treatments with whatever pitfalls they may have won’t have to be used anymore. Who knows, maybe we can even come up with an entirely new strategy.
Crazy idea: What if we could leverage cancer to work for our body? Cancer has always been seen as one of the strongest killers in modern history, but death rates in all categories are dropping relatively quite fast. In the future maybe we could use the properties of cancer, such as cell growth, or even creating cells that go around repairing your body that never die. With all these treatments rapidly being worked on and perfected, when it comes to cancer, the future is finally starting to look bright.
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